First in a two-part series
How does a team go from being a championship contender to the laughingstock of a professional sports league in less than a year?
Well, utter chaos is a good place to start.
Replacing a coach and gutting a deep, talented roster of its athleticism, complementary parts and experienced leadership are two measures that don’t yield positive results — at least not in the short term.
Does this sound familiar?
This is the story of the Tokyo Apache, whose fans are disgusted by the bj-league team’s reversal of fortune.
The zenith of the fans’ displeasure was on full display on Jan. 13 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, where scores of Apache supporters held up “No. 21” banners between the third and fourth quarters in a game against the Kyoto Hannaryz. It was a unified show of support for veteran big man Nick Davis, who was unceremoniously handed his walking papers over the holidays.
(The team waited until Jan. 8 to make the announcement official, but Davis said he was informed of the decision the day after Christmas.)
The fans waited until the break in the action after the third quarter to passionately chant “We Want Nick!”
Davis joined the Apache before the 2007-08 season after three seasons with the Niigata Albirex BB. A well-traveled pro, he had also played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, France, Italy and the Dominican Republic, but considered Japan like a second home.
During Davis’ time with the Apache, the team played in two title games and built a championship nucleus.
Then things fill apart.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the first coach in team history, didn’t get a contract extension after last season. Under new ownership, the team’s roster underwent a major overhaul, too.
New bench boss Motofumi Aoki, who previously coached the Takamatsu Five Arrows, was handed a roster with little depth, little versatility and few players with defined roles.
The 33-year-old Davis, however, stuck with the same approach that has been his meal ticket since wrapping up his collegiate career at the University of Arkansas in 1998.
“I have always been able to rebound and block shots,” he told me during an interview in 2007.
Apparently, that wasn’t good enough for the atrocious Apache (6-16 entering this weekend), who are not a very good rebounding team and not particularly adept at blocking shots, either. Davis played in 16 games this season before he was released. His numbers — 8.8 points, 12.5 rebounds (No. 4 in the league), 3.3 assists and 1.6 blocks (tied for seventh-best) per game — were not spectacular, but solid.
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Under a new coach and new offensive and defensive systems, statistics don’t always provide a complete picture of a player’s true value; these things take time to be revealed, to reach fruition.
But Davis still found a way to get the job done: 13 games with 10 or more rebounds, nine games with three or more assists, eight games with two or more blocks and six games with two or more steals. And he did all those things without the support of departed teammates John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Dameion Baker, Tizzo Johnson, Darin Satoshi Maki, Jun Iwasa, Masashi Joho and Kosaku Yada, all of whom played for Bryant’s squad last season.
Above all, the rail-thin Davis was a consistently hard worker, showing time after time that he wasn’t afraid to fight ferociously for every loose ball and sacrifice his body to make his teammates better. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the Apache didn’t appear in a championship game until he arrived in Tokyo.
And yet the Apache front office responded to my inquiry earlier this week by issuing the following statements:
“Nick Davis’ declined performance this year was notable. . . . His performance was good when the team had five foreign players until last year, but with only three or four (foreign) players this season, we determined that it would be difficult for him to work up through the season and rise to the same level of performance as last year.
“We had comprehensively examined his salary and the necessary running cost of the team, and after consulting with the player, we had responded accordingly.”
The team indicated it is looking to sign another big man in the coming weeks.
At the same time, a truer picture is emerging about the sinking ship that is Tokyo Apache franchise. And it’s not pretty.
“(Regarding) Tokyo’s finances, yes they are not doing well,” an Apache insider told The Japan Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It’s their fault. They let most of the original players go. Nobody wants to buy our tickets now. Now Tokyo’s basketball is so boring. The new owner (Seiji Nomura) decides everything depending on who he likes. Mr. Aoki and (team president) Mr. (Hideki) Makino do not have any power on the team. Everything is (based) on the owner’s likes and dislikes.
“So you can tell the new owner does not like Joho (and) Nick. He likes (small forward) Reina (Itakura) and (point guard Rasheed) Sparks.”
The source also said Davis and fellow big man Julius Ashby, who joined the team in 2008 and leads the team in scoring (20.3 ppg) had a dysfunctional relationship.
“Nick and Julius did not get along at all,” the source said. “They did not talk. They did not know each other’s phone number, they did not come to practice together even though they live at the same place.”
The source believes part of the friction between Ashby and Davis stems from 2008-09 in Bryant’s final season at the helm when Ashby typically entered games as a reserve.
“In my opinion, Julius does not like Jelly, because Jelly was tough on Julius,” the source said. “Jelly knows Julius has talent and good size. That’s why he was on him all the time. But Julius is too young to understand, I guess.
“Julius believes that he is much better than Nick but Nick always starts.”
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On an average weekday, there are 30 million people in metropolitan Tokyo. Absolutely, the potential is there for a larger fan base for the Apache, but not if the team’s brain trust fails to grasp the big picture: fans need a reason to care about its assembled collection of players.
And the way things are going, fan support will probably continue to plummet.
“Right now, so many things are going on with the team,” the source said. “Every Japanese player is afraid of getting released. They don’t have any freedom to play with their instincts. They are not warriors anymore.
“They cannot talk to their coach anymore. The only players Mr. Aoki talks to are Sparks, Julius and sometimes (All-Star guard) Cohey (Aoki).
“That’s sad. Everybody else is nobody to him. We used to have so much fun as a team.”
* * * * *Coming Monday: Davis speaks candidly about his time in Japan and his unflinching desire to help the Apache turn things around.